Asma and Rekha are graduate students at Maulana Azad College in the east Indian state of West Bengal. On March 16, 2020, with no prior notice, the college shuttered ahead of the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Without a fixed reopening date, students vacated campus and went home. Asma headed to the northern territory of Kashmir, and Rekha to the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
A week later, online classes for their biotech program resumed via Zoom, with all 20 students in attendance, except Asma.
Asma’s homestate of Kashmir, which is notorious for government-mandated internet gags, now runs on a limited 2G cellular network, well below the minimum requirement for apps like Zoom to function smoothly. She can neither join lectures nor download them to watch later. “It took me an entire day to download the Zoom app, but it stopped at 90% and then failed,” recalls Asma.
Some 1,500 miles away, Rekha, holed up at her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu, jumps online at 11 a.m. sharp for daily lectures. After a quick count of screens, which has now replaced roll call, classes commence. They last until 9 p.m., with short breaks every hour, and a four-hour recess for lunch. Except for the occasional lapse in her high-speed 4G connection, Rekha never misses class.
Within a matter of weeks, these two students could be in very different positions as a result of unequal internet access. At a moment in which students across India are seamlessly switching to online education, 2.7 million students in Jammu and Kashmir are being left behind.
The restoration of 2G internet was the culmination of the longest internet shutdown in history. On August 5, 2019, the Hindu nationalist government led by Narendra Modi revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority territory in India, and shut down internet and landline phone access. This was ostensibly to curb the spread of misinformation and throttle the information channels of “terrorists,” but critics argue it was actually done to control the narrative on social media. In anticipation of a backlash, militarized troops were sent in, journalists were detained, and political leaders were taken into custody.
After a grueling six-month blackout, the internet was partially restored in January. And then came coronavirus. Now under lockdown and forced to be even more reliant on snail-paced internet, doctors, teachers, and small businesses have again had their livelihoods thrown into disarray. And for students like Asma, simple tasks like watching video lectures take up to 50 times longer.
In Tamil Nadu, Rekha’s day usually starts with checking her class schedule on WhatsApp, then downloading the PDF files and PowerPoint presentations needed for class. She spends her mornings in bed scrolling through news, videos, and updates from friends on Facebook before switching to Instagram to catch up on workout videos shared by quarantined Bollywood actors. Around 10:45 a.m., she connects her laptop to a mobile hotspot and logs in to her biotech class on the web portal MyPerfectice.com. This is new. Until several weeks ago, all of Rekha’s online lectures happened over Zoom, but the college administration changed course after an Indian government advisory said that it was “not a safe platform.”
Asma has been excused from attending classes because of her connectivity problems and now receives daily emails with course materials. Every morning, after looking at WhatsApp to catch up on the memes poking fun at Kashmir’s barely functional internet, Asma checks her student email. Today, she’s received an immunology assignment that requires her to download five different PowerPoint presentations.
When the page finally loads, she begins to download all five at 320 Kbps. (Dial-up connections from the early ’90s had speeds of 56 Kbps, while 4G internet connections in India averages 11 Mbps.) “It usually takes around two to four hours,” she says. As she waits, Asma opens YouTube on her phone to watch the Khan Academy educational videos that she saved back in Kolkata. While the world worried about the virus and stocked up on toilet paper, she stocked up on online courses. To Asma, who has lived through the roughly 180 internet shutdowns that have been imposed on Kashmir since 2012, planning ahead is now second nature. “This happens a lot in Kashmir,” she remarks. “Just when life is almost back on track, something goes wrong.”
Rekha’s frustration lies elsewhere. What gets to her is the monotony of staring at her laptop screen, unable to perform any of the biology experiments demonstrated in the videos. She watches the lectures and takes notes, but “It’s doing the experiment that counts,” she says. When interest in class starts to wane, students message each other in private chat groups about meeting to play Ludo King, a mobile strategy game. Sending back-channel WhatsApp messages has become the digital equivalent of passing a scrawled note in class.
In Kashmir, two hours go by before Asma checks on the download progress for the second time. Around 70% done. That’s when she receives a Ludo invite from friends, but she’s unable to play because of her network. “I’ll join you guys at night,” she texts the WhatsApp group. “Network connectivity is better at night,” she adds. Half an hour later, Asma checks her phone, again. This time, all five presentations were successfully downloaded. She heaves a sigh of relief for not having to restart the download. At this point, it’s late afternoon, and she will spend the next several hours working alone on her assignments.
Asma isn’t the only person in her family whose life has been significantly complicated by Kashmir’s internet situation. Her father, a doctor, has had trouble accessing COVID-19 guidelines and videos. Her older brother, who runs online classes for aspiring accountants, hasn’t been able to teach for over a month now.
When Asma finally finishes her schoolwork, it’s dark out. Since getting home, she has been wanting to catch up on her favorite Turkish series, “Ertuğrul,” on YouTube. But with the video buffering every “5 seconds” to play 30 seconds of pixelated content, she usually quits after 15 minutes, instead going for long evening walks in the nearby forest. “That’s probably the only thing I do for fun here,” she says.
In Tamil Nadu, Rekha’s schedule goes on till 9 p.m., when classes disperse. “I’m exhausted by the time it’s done,” she says. Most nights end with Rekha playing Ludo before falling asleep, scrolling through her Instagram feed.
Asma is back in her room by 10 p.m., with her phone in hand. She starts perusing the PowerPoint slides once again and makes notes of questions to ask her teacher the following day over email. In the middle of this, she receives another Ludo request from friends. This time, she accepts it. If she’s lucky, the connection will last for the duration of a game — about 10 to 15 minutes — without freezing. It’s one of the only moments of her day when she’s back with her classmates and friends, connected in real time. Then Asma heads off to bed, only to start the same cycle all over again the next day.